1 Year In Switzerland: 10 Reflections On Living Abroad - Olliechinny
Swiss Expat Life

1 Year In Switzerland: 10 Reflections On Living Abroad

It’s been 1 year in Switzerland. We are already into the end of February 2020, and the freshness of the new year is starting to wear off. Belated as it is, I wanted to write this reflection post to look back on 2019.

The beautiful thing about recounting the year is the ability to see what you were blind to in the midst of it. The lessons learned, the perspective gathered, and the realisation of how God faithfully carried us through from one season to the next.

2019 was the most significant year in my life, in that it was our first year living abroad in Switzerland! Name any emotion…and I’ve probably experienced it last year. This expat journey brought so much crazy ups and downs, but I’m thankful for every single second of it. Here’s looking back on 12 months of full adventures, growth and milestones, and the reflections along the way.

1. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

The first 6 months were exceptionally tough, because moving abroad meant losing a physical support network to fall back on. So even when shit hits the fan, the only option is to pull through on your own. And when the training wheels are off, that’s when you learn how to balance that bike and RIDE IT.

True to my Type 6 personality, I always tend to veer towards the pessimistic side of things. Initially, I worried about being unemployed. Then before I knew it, Edacy happened, and I was whisked off to work within a month. I then placed a crazy amount of energy stressing over seemingly impossible deadlines, and having to quickly learn managing a big team of 7. Then there was the standard expats woes of handling administration (insurance, paying bills, falling sick and finding a doctor, permit issues) On top of that, I was dealing with major homesickness. But basically…you get the point.

couple in Paros island, Greece

I’d lost count of the number of times I’d cried myself to sleep over the last year. But the fact that I’d made it out alive through all these hardships is something I’m incredibly proud of! No doubt, Vince was an incredible pillar of support, and I definitely would not survived through this ordeal without him. Our marriage was strengthened, as we learnt to work as a team, knowing that we only have each other to rely on in this foreign country. But a lot of this journey was on my own too, and I’ve learned that I’m sooo much emotionally stronger and more independent than I ever thought I could be. Don’t get me wrong…I know I am always and forever will be a gan-cheong spider. But I’ve certainly come a long way.

2. On the slower pace of life

I can’t quite articulate it. But somehow, the Swiss have a way of living slowly, but fully. They have an appreciation for sitting down with a glass of wine, going for walks to admire the sceneries, and investing their time with family. Here, you would hardly find parents overbooking their kids in a million different activities. I’d never heard the word “tuition” uttered in Switzerland, be it in English or French! Instead, parents just spend quality time with their children. Case in point: One of Vince’s friend took his daughter for a train ride out to town and back home, with ZERO agenda. Just because she loves riding trains, and he accompanied her. What a sweet dad!

Singaporeans, myself included, are always so “busy”. We slave ourselves to our work and grind ourselves to the ground. But, really, who wants to live life like that? Switzerland had taught me the importance of self-care, to slow down and maintain a healthy relationship with myself.

woman underneath the tree facing Lake Léman, Switzerland

In 2019 (minus-ing the peak stressful periods), I…

Went to the park and read a book for 2 hours. Had coffee dates. soaked in a hot bubble bath. Lit scented candles. Baked tiramisu. Went thrift-shopping at flea markets. Wrote in my gratitude journal. Tended to our plants. (Ok…Some died. But we all learn!) Spent more time standing over the stove. Gave a different meaning to 9-5. (Slept at 9pm, woke up at 5am) Played in the snow. Took personality tests.

It was as though my heart was finally able to slow down last year, and gladly let out a deep, long breath.

3. On going green

We definitely had a heightened sense of environmental consciousness after moving abroad. Switzerland is one of the most advanced nations when it comes to recycling, and the Swiss take their sorting business VERY. SERIOUSLY. Back in Singapore, we would have simply chucked our garbage down the chute mindlessly everyday. Yet the last time I counted here, there are at least 8 different kinds of recyclables: from plastic, glass, aluminium, oils, right down to water filters! Even garbage bags are pre-taxed. And it’s hella expensive: Just imagine paying $3 SGD to throw your rubbish each time.

So yes, taking out the rubbish costs more and takes up double the time now. But the thing is…the recycling and disposal system here WORKS. Because people have a greater incentive to cut down on waste to reduce their garbage fees, and waste are actually PROPERLY sorted, which further aids the recycling process. I find that Singapore has so much to learn from Switzerland in this aspect!

The Swiss also have a strong aversion towards plastic, which made us realised in comparison the crazy amount of plastic our mere 2-person household had been generating. (Tip: Set aside a separate bin to throw only plastics for a day. You will be surprised how fast it accumulates in just a day!)

Ever since, Vince and I have made changes to our shopping habits to reduce our plastic consumption. For example, we have completely ditched plastic bags for recyclable shopping bags. We’d also switched to buying eggs with cardboard packaging over plastic ones, choosing loose fruits and vegetables (without cling-wrap), and using organic bar soaps over shower gels in plastic packaging. We try as much as possible to bring portable cutlery with us, so that there’s no need for disposable forks or straws if we have take-aways.

These are just small changes, but I’m glad how Switzerland has influenced us into taking actual steps to be less harmful to the environment. More importantly, I know that this is a lifestyle change that will stick to us for a lifetime.

4. That placing myself in uncomfortable situations is rewarding

There were so many instances when I had to push myself out of my comfort zone last year. Like heading to a Christmas party alone where you hardly know anyone. Having to pitch and fight for that pay raise. (and getting it!) Or travelling solo for work, to two continents I’d never stepped foot into. It’s absolutely petrifying, but every time I conquer a new fear I feel so rewarded.

5. On new friendships and the people you meet

Both Vince and I are pretty sociable by nature, and I would say we had faired decently well in the friendship department. Unfortunately, I’d went through this period when I was silently making comparisons between the new friends I’d made in Switzerland and my old friends back in Singapore.

C3 Lausanne Connect Group Switzerland

“These are YOUR friends, not mine!” I whined bitterly to Vince while heading out for lunch with his colleagues.

“XXX is really nice and kind…but doesn’t understand me like my other girlfriends do.”

“Bo gum leh. I never seem to move past being acquaintances with the people at church. “

“Everyone speaks in French so fast during lunch and I can’t understand! Back home I’m the one talking THE MOST. Now I have to bear with sitting along the sidelines like a mouse!”

It took me a while, but eventually the internal fog cleared. I realised how I was so consumed with these negative, biased thoughts…that it robbed me of the ability to simply appreciate these new-found friends. That unless I stopped comparing to my past and let go of all these expectations/ benchmarks I have on these others, I will NEVER find any satisfaction with my social life.

My friends and colleagues here may not know my past or understand my quirks as well as my old pals. And who knows if I will meet them again in the future, when our paths diverge? Yet they have been uniquely placed in this season of life that I am in right now, and that’s all the matters at this point.

I am in the process of learning to appreciate being with a friend, and to enjoy the best of whatever time we have in each other’s company. To be equally socially fulfilled with coffee chats, church gatherings, day-trips with our french classmates, or dinner parties with our Singaporean friends. Eventually learning to keep, or to let them go when the time has come.

6. On FOMO, and staying connected back home

You might be out on the streets walking back home, and then BOOM.

You might be scrolling through Instagram, and you see pictures of family celebrations you’d missed, or parties you haven’t been invited to… BOOM.

It’s your birthday, and the clock strikes 12. The birthday wishes don’t start pouring in, like how they used to. BOOM.

Loneliness hits. And the next thing you know, you don’t feel good about yourself anymore.

“I’m missing out so much! Everyone’s forgotten about me!”

It’s true that I missed out on some big life events for my friends and family, Last year, I missed my best friend’s wedding in March. This year, my younger sister is taking her IB exams, and I know she would have appreciated having me by her side to support her. Other loved ones have their own personal battles to fight, and sometimes it still chokes me up that I cannot be with them when they need me to.

Yet everything has its trade-offs. Coming here means sacrificing the time we have with our family. But it’s a life we have chosen for ourselves, and we are sticking to it. Because we have to take the opportunities while we can, and now is the best time to be here. So no regrets.

As for maintaining friendships, I’ve learned that it’s not about how long you’ve known one another. Neither is it about the time spent together in person. Because if the friendship is built on a solid foundation and based on a true connection, then both parties will make the effort to invest in the friendship. For true friends, distance will never be the reason for falling apart.

Living a thousand miles away, I may not have the luxury of making plans to head out with all my favourite people whenever I feel like it. But I know that they have my back no matter what. Because they have proven it to me time and over again.

On the same note, it was wonderful to be able to host many of our friends that came over to visit us last year. We had people staying with us almost every quarter, and it definitely helped to liven things up at our home, and ensured we had constant supplies of yakun kaya, sesame oil and Milo. (We even had DURIAN flew over, thanks Xinhui!) So to all our friends that came: THANK YOU for thinking of us and flying all the way over to visit, you don’t know how much it meant to us. And to new friends intending to visit this year: Ring us up, we’re more than happy to host! 🙂

We were also super excited about coming back home recently in February for Chinese New Year! I’d packed my 2 weeks back to back like an MP’s visitation schedule, meeting different groups of friends every day…It felt wonderful to catch up with everyone, to hear about their stories and growth over the past year.

7. On the seasons

Being able to fully witness the 4 seasons for the first time was one of the most profoundly beautiful experience of 2019. Every season brought out a prevalent mood, each inspiring poignant reflection.

In spring, the magnolias are out in full bloom. The trees are bright green and the new growth on the ground signifies new hope.

couples under cherry blossom trees outside musée olympique in Lausanne, Switzerland

Summer comes, and the city takes on a more vibrant beat as people come out to play in sun-dresses and flip flops. The harvest are ripe in the vineyards and perfect for long hikes.

couple in lavaux vineyards, Switzerland

In the fall, just as your cheeks get a little ruddy from the cooler weather, the leaves change from green to bright hues of orange and red. And they make the most beautiful mess of colours.

And in winter, downy snowflakes fall and transform the landscape into a vast, serene piece of white.

couple holding hands in Interlaken during winter, Switzerland

With every season’s transition, I had a better appreciation of time passing me by. And looking back, I could see how He had sustained me through my own symbolic springs, summers, autumns, and winters.

8. On travelling

One of the greatest perks of living in Switzerland is the cheaper, easier access to travel around Europe and beyond. Being able to hop on a plane or train and be in a different city or country so quickly still feels super incredible to me.

couple in front of strasbourg cathedral in France

Europe will always hold a special place in my heart. It was where I did my first solo travel abroad to Prague 7 years ago. It’s also where I established my second home outside of Singapore. For me, it is also the most beautiful continent in the world. From the majestic mountain views in Switzerland, the gorgeous sunsets in Greece, to the ancient Roman architecture in Italy…There is just so much history and natural beauty in nearly every country in Europe. 

Escaliers du marche in Lausanne, Switzerland

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I actually live here in Switzerland. Because when you get wrapped up in a routine, it’s easy to lose sight of your surroundings. But walking the on cobblestone streets in the old Town, hearing the church bells ringing, and seeing the 17th century buildings and wooden staircases reminds me that hey, I’ve definitely changed locations.

Travelling within the country is an equal paradise for outdoor lovers. Taking only 20 minutes from our home we can take a peaceful walk through the Sauvabellin forest. Another 30 minutes away brings us to the Lavaux vineyards.

walk in the Sauvabellin Forest, Lausanne Switzerland
vineyards in Lavaux during summer

Head out further by train, and you have the Alps cascading through the landscapes. With green pastures and cows mooing with their loud cowbells. It’s a scenery straight out of the Swiss milk cartons!

couple facing mountains in Switzerland

Still, moving abroad doesn’t mean that we are constantly travelling. Sure, my Instagram feed is full of pretty travel photos. People sometimes thinks falsely that I’m enjoying #globetrotter life. In reality, I just schedule my posts over long stretches, while working Monday through Friday like a normal person! Before coming I’d made grand plans and wrote a bucket list to explore every nook and cranny of Switzerland. But the truth is…life STILL gets in the way of traveling — just like it would back home.

This year, I hope that we get the chance to explore the east and southern side of this Switzerland. We might also be heading to London…to vote!

9. On learning French

Mastering French was a shared couple goal, and certainly brought Vince and I closer together. It has become our secret language now (when we don’t want others to understand us back home :p) We are also morphing into French-otakus who would rather stay home with our books and online lessons, rather than having date nights out!

learning french with cosmopolite 2 parcours digital

Learning this foreign language certainly didn’t felt the same as learning English or Mandarin back in our earlier days at school. Partly because we are adult learners now with more maturity. But I think more so, because the desire to master French is exceptionally stronger this time round. That we are learning for daily survival, for integration, and to feel belonged.

It was no walk in the park, but there were small wins along the way. Like being able to slowly read and decipher the weekly Migros newspaper. Making successful small talks with the old ladies while waiting at the bus stop. Calling the canton administration and the other party UNDERSTANDS! What you’re saying! (That please, can you resend the package to me because I missed it while on vacation?)

But the greatest sense of reward I had was every Sunday, as I offered up my praises in French. (We’re very thankful to be part of C3 Lausanne, which hosts bilingual services for the local and expat population). And suddenly it hits. That I may learn a thousand different tongues…but God hears them all the same, and He receives our worship as His fragrant offering.

c3 lausanne worship
Credits: C3 Church Lausanne
c3 lausanne worship
Credits: C3 Church Lausanne

We have officially completed A2 French, and will be moving on to B1 intermediate level this year. Instead of continuing French classes, this year we will be trying out online Skype lessons with a private tutor, plus self-studying and practising conversations at work. So do continue to wish us perseverance and passion in our French-learning journey!

10. Things have a way of working out

This is related to my first point, but I needed to remind myself of this. That even though things get rocky and I often have no idea what’s coming next, everything will ALWAYS work out in the end.

Sometime in April last year, I penned this quote down. And I couldn’t be more grateful for these words of wisdom during that low moment of my life.

The next time you are stressed, take a step back, inhale and laugh. Remember where you are, and why you are here. You’re never given anything in this world that you can’t handle. Be strong, be flexible. Love yourself and love others. Always remember: Just keep moving forward.”

couple in Lucerne, chapel bridge Switzerland

My first year abroad has really opened my world and mind. It has made me so much more appreciative of all that I have back home in Singapore: the efficiency of our system, my family, and the hawker prices of food! I also grew a new sense of respect for Switzerland, and all the different people and cultures I’d the chance to meet in this country.

Coming here hasn’t always been easy, but I’m so happy that Vince and took this risk.

Because 1 year in…it’s been more than worth it. 

Love, Ollie

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